Hearing water rippling close by, Syndria pushed her way through briers and thorn bushes to collapse on the bank of the small stream. She dropped the pack Tamara had prepared for her next to her lap, then leaned forward and dipped her hands into the clear water. The stream flowed from a spring to the north, so it was surprisingly cold. Splashing some on her face, Syndria gasped as the icy water quickly snapped her out of the trance-like state she had walked in for the last few hours. Wiping her hands on the cleanest spot she could find on her gown, the girl untied the pack in anticipation of a chunk of Tamara’s sweetbread. Her eyes widened in delight as she took in the pack’s contents. Besides the sweetbread, Tamara had packed a hunk of salted pork and fresh cheese. There was also a small bundle tied in red trim, and Syndria’s mouth watered as she realized the pretty little bundle held molasses candies she had helped Lyddie make. Once the food was out of the pack, she couldn’t believe her eyes. Syndria tore off the soiled gown she had been wearing and tossed it aside. There in the bottom of the pack lay the deep red dress Tamara had first altered for the girl. She splashed the cold water from the stream over her body, more concerned about not getting the dress dirty than with the sting she got from the icy stream in the morning breeze. She pulled the red gown on over her head, smiling with delight at the thought of Tamara’s loving gesture. Feeling refreshed in the new gown, Syndria settled down to eat. She tucked the candies into her pocket for later, knowing that if she ate even one now she would devour them all. Just as she took a big bite out of the pork, she heard a twig snap in the forest behind her.
Lowering the pork to her lap, the young Healer cautiously peered over her shoulder into the trees. There, crouching low and almost invisible under the thick brush, waited a large tan cougar, its golden eyes intent on the girl by the water. Its haunches quivered as the cougar prepared to leap, and Syndria felt a chill run up her spine as she watched the beast lick its lips.
She rose slowly to her feet and turned to face the beast, hoping it would not be brazen enough--or starving enough--to pounce while she matched its gaze. Much to her relief, the cat didn’t leap. However, that relief soon changed to a different kind of terror as the tawny mountain lion began to inch forward.
Syndria stood frozen, her wide eyes never leaving the cougar. Never before had she seen a wild animal so boldly approach a human. There had been a man in Lurn when she was a child who had tamed a wolf, but he had raised it from a pup. As the cougar crawled out of the bushes into the light, the Healer could see what had made the beast desperate enough to risk coming near. Its right hind leg was bloody and badly mangled. Patches of hair were missing and in one place low on its leg Syndria could see the white of a bone showing through.
Immediately all fears flew out of her mind as the compassion of a Healer pushed aside all other feelings. Stooping slowly so as not to frighten the injured animal approaching her, she picked up the salt pork from where it had fallen onto the ground. The cat stopped in its tracks, unsure of what to do next. Its eyes darted back and forth, looking from the meat in the Healer’s hand to the woods behind. Tossing the large chunk a few feet closer to the cougar, Syndria moved back toward the water’s edge and sat still. Cautiously the cougar hobbled forward, a wary eye constantly on the human just a few yards away. Once it reached the meat all thoughts of Syndria seemed to vanish as the big cat devoured the pork, seeing as how it never once looked at the girl.
Syndria’s heart broke as she watched the poor animal. Judging by the ravenous way the cougar attacked the pork, it had not eaten since the injury. Since she was so young when her gift had been revealed, Syndria had often managed to sneak away from Nedra during her training and use her gift on injured animals. She had healed birds with broken wings and kittens with thorns in their paws. She knew that she could help the mountain lion if only she could place her hands on the terrible injury. However, Syndria had no idea how she would be able to get close to the devastating injury without coming into contact with the teeth that were tearing into the salt pork or the terrible claws already extended.
Syndria settled in by the brook, watching the starving animal. The meat vanished quickly and the cougar began sniffing the air. It soon spotted the fresh cheese and sweetbread still lying on the untied pack halfway between it and the Healer, but was too wary of the human to approach. Syndria looked away from the cat and sat silently watching the brook trickle over smooth stones. Though she knew staying in one place for too long while she was running from the castle was dangerous, the Healer’s empathy won out over the girl’s fear, and Syndria waited for three hours before the injured animal drew close enough to eat the bread and cheese. Another long wait found the large cougar limping up to the small brook, now starting to ignore the girl just a few yards upstream.
After drinking its fill, the big cat lay down beside the water and began licking its hind leg to clean the terrible wound. Soon though, the cougar seemed to finally give in to what must have been excruciating pain and lay still, its golden eyes watching Syndria with only mild curiosity. Slowly the young Healer began inching toward the big cat, careful not to look at it. The cougar didn’t move or tense up; it just lay watching the girl. As Syndria moved into the mountain lion’s reach she made herself stay calm. Her breathing was slow and steady, her movements smooth as she reached out toward the cat. The Healer had no idea what would happen next, but she knew she had to be ready for the worst. What happened as her hand got closer to the animal, though, was like nothing Syndria had imagined.
The cougar looked away from Syndria, seemingly unconcerned with her presence. The Healer didn’t hesitate, afraid even the slightest hesitation would unnerve her or make the cougar reconsider its trust in her. As she placed her hands gently on the wounded leg and let the healing life flow through to the cat, nothing else mattered to Syndria. She no longer worried about her own safety from either the cougar or King Simann because everything she was, was now focused on healing. She drew the big cat’s pain into herself, a little shocked at the intensity. Finally, she could sense that the animal was whole again. Immediately the cougar’s muscles tensed under Syndria’s touch and he jumped up, knocking the Healer off balance in his haste. In a flash he was back in the trees, no sign of his presence left beside the stream. Looking around her, Syndria almost wondered if the injured cougar had been part of a dream, that maybe she had fallen asleep beside the stream and just imagined the whole thing. She soon pushed that thought aside, though, for she could feel the drain healing the cougar had put on her gift. She sat still for a moment to gather herself before moving on. Standing a few minutes later, she picked up the pack Tamara had sent with her. Not a crumb was left of the food and now Syndria’s stomach began to rumble as she remembered how hungry she was. The Healer shrugged her shoulders, for she knew there wasn’t anything she could do at the moment. Turning back to the water, Syndria decided to follow the brook southwest. Maybe she would come upon someone living along the water before reaching Saun who would be willing to spare some food. It would be safer if she could find someone outside of the city, since they would be less likely to know her as the Healer running from King Simann. A smile crossed her face when she remembered the small bundle in her pocket. Pulling it out by its red ribbon, Syndria took out a candy and popped it into her mouth, savoring the sweetness and hoping the sugar would give her enough energy to hold her over until she could find someplace to get some food.